Honoring veterans on the big screen
April 11, 1966, is recognized as one of the bloodiest days of the Vietnam War.
That day, during Operation Abilene, Air Force pararescuemen were called upon to extract American soldiers who found themselves under intense enemy fire. Among the pararescuemen was William H. Pitsenbarger, who that day was able to single-handedly save the lives of nearly 60 soldiers, sacrificing his own life in the process.
Pits, as he is commonly known, was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross in 1966, but in 2000, it was upgraded to the Medal of Honor after a young Washington bureaucrat, along with surviving soldiers of Operation Abilene and Pitsenbarger's father, convinced Congress to reconsider the legacy of his sacrifice.
Seventeen years later, the story of Pits and his rescue effort is set to become a major motion picture. "The Last Full Measure" will star such Hollywood actors as Samuel L. Jackson, Bradley Whitford and Sebastian Stan. And playing a small part in the movie will be a local bagpiper, who has been a Prineville Band of Brothers member for the past six years.
John Pierson, who was the 32nd member to join the local veterans group, was an Air Force pararescueman during his years of military service. After he left the Air Force, he found himself deeply troubled by the fact that 10 of the men he served with had been killed in the line of duty. Of those 10, only three of the bodies had been recovered.
"That bothered me for many years, and I needed a way of finding a public and significant way of honoring those guys," Pierson recalls. "It took me a few years to figure out that piping was the way to do it."
So, in 2003, Pierson started learning to play the bagpipes, and once he became proficient, he began playing them at military funerals. He moved to Prineville in 2009 and joined the Band of Brothers two years later. Then in 2012, he formed the nonprofit MILITARY HONORS by the Pipes, Inc., an organization that provides bagpipe music at military funerals throughout the country.
Last year, Pierson moved from Prineville to Roseburg, because the demand for pipers required a change of location for the nonprofit's operational quarters. Nevertheless, he remains a Band of Brothers member and has stayed connected with veterans in the Prineville community.
Pierson also joined the Pararescue Association years after his military service and found he was one of few bagpipers in the organization.
"I think there are only four of us," he said. That distinction, coupled with the fact that the association put him in contact with the eventual producers of "The Last Full Measure," resulted in Pierson getting consideration for a spot in the movie.
"When something like a movie is being produced, it goes around the rescue community," Pierson said, "and they wanted me to be a part of this."
Next week, Pierson will head to Atlanta, where filming is scheduled to take place Friday and Saturday. Accompanying him will be Gordon Convoy, a bagpiper whom Pierson holds in high regard.
"He is a world class bagpiper," he said, adding that Convoy is on the board of directors for MILITARY HONORS by the Pipes. "I thought it was very appropriate to take him."
While Pierson is not exactly clear on what his role will be, he expects it to center on the Medal of Honor ceremony that took place in 2000.
"That was the biggest Medal of Honor ceremony in the history of the military," he said. "What the producers are doing is trying to recreate the medal ceremony. How the director uses me or the other piper I am taking will be entirely up to them. I don't know where we'll be in the movie."
Pierson said he is proud to be a part of a movie that is honoring veterans, and he called it "a pretty personal thing" for him.
"I spent eight years flying with Air Force Rescue, and that had a huge influence on my life ever since. It is what got me started piping," he said.
Fellow Band of Brothers member Lynn Arnett is also happy that Pierson — who he calls a doggone good bagpiper — can be a part of the movie.
"His heart's in this," Arnett said. "I'm glad that somebody who has his heart in it has been asked to be a part of this movie."